I read a very inspiring post on LinkedIn last week about the significance of not only valuing yourself, but also appreciating the value of others.
This made me think about how important it is, in a generally critical academic world, to balance negative critique with positive appreciation. It’s what prompted me to write this blog on the subject of appreciation, and how it can impact on our careers
As I started to write my blog this afternoon [whilst also half-watching the world ski jumping competition live from Engelberg – Skisprung – on TV], it got me thinking more deeply about what ‘appreciate’ actually means. For example, I was appreciating the talent of the professional skiers, as they launched themselves from the ‘Jump’ and soared up through the air, but that wasn’t the type of ‘appreciate’ I wanted to write about. Nor was I talking about appreciation in terms of stocks and shares (of which I have none and know nothing about).
Let me explain: I left research a very long time ago, first switching to an assistant editorial role in scientific journal publishing. During this time, it could be a bit shocking, occasionally, to witness quite rude and defamatory comments made by some of our reviewers, whilst they hid behind their anonymity. Realising that much of what they said could be couched in more favourable language, I became quite skilled at the diplomacy required to communicate constructively between authors and reviewers.
After five years in the publishing business, I decided to focus more on the empathetic helping side of my character and transfer these skills into the Higher Education careers sector, where I could offer my assistance to early career researchers, rather than to authors. I soon realised that appreciation, rather than criticism, was at the heart of my new role and even written into practice, such as following an ethical code of practice. This meant actively listening, using non-judgemental analysis and taking an ‘unconditional positive regard’ attitude towards my clients.
Moving on, 25 years later, one of my primary aims, when coaching or delivering career workshops to researchers, is to help them to be more appreciative of their talents and how to apply them positively towards their career development. During our discussions, negative self-descriptions such as, I only do this, it’s just that, nothing special, etc… tend to surface. However, on the contrary, the kinds of skills and attributes possessed by researchers are valued by a whole host of employers, who need their ingenuity and high-tech skills.
Working in multi-talented academic environments can sometimes make those ‘at the bottom’ feel they know nothing. They can also take for granted what others would stand in awe of if they had a glimpse at the equipment inside their lab or saw the mind-blowing analytical tools they use – and usually all of it self-taught!
So how can you harness the power of appreciation to boost your own self-esteem, confidence and even career prospects, as well as appreciating others along the way? Here are some of my thoughts and a summary matrix:
It can sometimes be hard to appreciate your own talents when you’re a PhD or postdoctoral researcher. Being an apprentice or employed on a short-term contract can make you feel inadequate, and sometimes even an outsider, when you compare yourselves with the permanent more senior members of your department. However, on the contrary, you are the power-houses and engine rooms of your university/research institute; you generate the data, solve the problems and innovate the technology.
Many of you reach out to wider audiences, initiate collaborations and even locate funding sources. Teaching is usually taken on a side-job, when it is, in fact, multi-faceted involving careful preparation, creative communication, precise and sensitive assessment and evaluation, as well as pastoral support.
Amongst these more direct capabilities and aptitudes are all the so-called ‘transferable’ skills that you develop to help you to do your research. These include organisation, planning and project management, self-motivation, negotiating, diplomacy and enterprising skills, to name but a few.
Even senior people admit to suffering from Imposter Syndrome, so if you’re finding it difficult to overcome feelings of self-doubt and inadequacy, remember you are not alone. Consider the next time you’re talking about yourself, writing your CV or creating an online profile: try to make sure you’re using positive, appreciative language that demonstrates that you (at least outwardly) value your worth, even if you’re not feeling it inside. You’ll be amazed the effect it has on you and others around you.
And on that note, don’t forget to extend your appreciation to others. An academic once stated (on Twitter, I think) that she has a rule, during her weekly research group meetings, that everyone must say at least one positive thing about each other. She said it had transformed the group, which was now more cohesive, supportive and productive. In other words, their appreciation of each other had led to the appreciation of the group as a whole and had most probably appreciated the value of the researchers’ careers as well.
Going back to my former days of scientific publishing, when it comes to giving feedback [which necessarily needs to include negative as well as positive observations] the key to a constructive and diplomatic evaluation is to sandwich the critical comments between more appreciative ones. For example, congratulating someone on their talk or journal article, before identifying areas for improvement. Remember, even if the result has not been top notch, it’s very likely that the presenter or author has put a lot of time and effort into the preparation.
We all do things differently, so if someone is being seemingly awkward with you, try to understand what lies beneath. Perhaps, their way of looking at things is quite different from yours, perhaps their strengths lie in other areas, or they may be having a hard time personally, which is manifesting itself in strange and unsociable behaviour. See my previous blog about this.
Collaboration and multidisciplinary interactions help researchers to extend their research and, at the more senior level, to expand their group and international profile. Working coherently with people from other disciplines, institutions and countries can be challenging, but also rewarding if handled well. There’s no reason, as an early career researcher, you can’t be the lynch pin of the collaboration, helping to coordinate the members, whilst enhancing your people skills at the same time. Appreciation of each member’s contribution goes a long way to ensuring that everyone involved, no matter how remote, feels valued and that their work is as worthwhile as everyone else’s.
So, after quite a long blog to end this year, I leave you with a quote and look forward to appreciating your company again next year!
“Just as stocks and shares can rise in value, so can a researcher’s value appreciate through personal and professional investment.”